Perhaps Todd Rundgren’s own restive muse — he’s dabbled in every major rock subgenre over the past four decades — simply makes him too difficult to categorize. Maybe Rundgren never stuck with one thing long enough. Somehow, this pop music maverick hasn’t consistently found the wider fame he so richly deserves.
At least outside of our crowded listening stations at the Something Else! Towers. We love us some Rundgren. Let’s count the ways …
“WE GOTTA GET YOU A WOMAN” (RUST, 1970): The light blue Bearsville label read “We Gotta Get You Woman” on Side A with the word RUNT below it. It’s funny the details you can recall on a single from forty years ago and I couldn’t even tell you what I ate for breakfast yesterday. But even more memorable was the music that poured out when I cued it up on my cheap plastic portable record player.
At the time I thought the song was pretty catchy and soulful, and the melody seemed to keep shifting gears but in a reasonably sensible way. I played it a good number of times; it was a little bit similar to the Beatles to me. Today, I know a lot more about it: the song was by Todd Rundgren who began his solo career then under the name “Runt,” which was just him and a rhythm section who both called Soupy Sales “Dad.”
It also took a while before I noticed the connection to the Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night and Blood Sweat & Tears songs I was listening to at around the same time: Rundgren had constructed this piano based tune like a Laura Nyro song (the B side “Baby Let’s Swing” even called Laura by name, and is nearly as good as the A side).
A straightforward tale about the narrator coaxing his buddy to remedy his blues by scoring some tail, Rundgren already had much of the pieces in place that led to his Something/Anything? breakout album a couple of years later, and yet “Woman” still reached the top 20 on the Hot 100 chart. It never attained the staying power of “Hello It’s Me” or “I Saw The Light,” though, as you don’t hear this song on classic rock radio stations like those two hits from Something/Anything?. Maybe in a way, that’s not so bad; hearing it infrequently keeps it fresh every time I listen to it and I’m immediately taken back to sitting on the floor next to my little plastic record player with the light blue label 45 spinning around it. — by S. Victor Aaron
“HELLO IT’S ME,” SOMETHING/ANYTHING? (1972): It’s tempting to think of this as a time before Todd Rundgren got all weird. After all, “Hello It’s Me” was one of a string of AM radio staples -– beginning with “I Saw The Light” and continuing with “Couldn’t I Just Tell You” — that made the U.S. Top 100 over the course of 1972. In fact, “Hello It’s Me,” the first song Rundgren ever wrote, went all the way to No. 5. Anyone who bought the album (a four-sided explosion of ideas from a guy who’s rightly been called an insanely gifted obsessive) looking for more of the same — like, er, me — was in for a hefty surprise.
“Hello It’s Me,” with its pull-you-in opening stanza, comfy McCartney-esque ambiance, and soaring chorus, simply sets the stage for a record where Rundgren starts furiously shoving the boundaries of music making. Turns out, he was always weird. Fabulously weird. “Hello” was actually tucked into a fourth-side mock pop operetta reportedly done live with whomever happened to be in the studio. The song right before it? “Piss Aaron.” Right after it? “Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me.” The album ends with a delicately shaded lament over contracting VD.
Side one had been called “A Bouquet of Ear-Catching Melodies,” and appropriately included as its opening track the Carole King-inspired “I Saw The Light.” Side two: “The Cerebral Side,” with some of Rundgren’s initial forays into fusion and progressive rock. Side three: “The Kid Gets Heavy,” with “Couldn’t I Just Tell You,” as well as grittier fare that recalls Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
Leaven this swirling blizzard of musical invention with as many hit songs as you like, and Something/Anything? still blows the top of your (er, my) head off. Even “Hello It’s Me” offers more than its first-blush Fab Four pretentions. I hear Philly soul, jazz organist Jimmy Smith and, of course, his now-obscure predecessor group called the Nazz, too — since they did the original (very dirgey) version.
The truth is, Rundgren arrived fully formed for a career that would move into every permutation of art rock, into techno with his early-1990s TR-i offerings and even new-wave redux with a 2000s-era version of the Cars. Along the way, he also became an in-demand engineer and producer, working across a similarly intriguing landscape –- from The Band’s Stage Fright to Hall and Oates’ War Babies to XTC’s Skylarking, among many others.
“Hello It’s Me,” a timeless piece of throwback power-pop, might just be the perfect introduction. It was for me. — by Nick DeRiso
“LOVE IN ACTION” (BACK TO THE BARS, 1978): Here’s the order of my Todd Rundgren purchases: Back To The Bars, The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect, Arena, Something/Anything?. Weird, I know. There are some artists I’ve ignored over the years and Rundgren is one of them. (For some reason, David Bowie is on that list too.) In fact, I only bought Something/Anything? about a year ago, after reading Bebe Buell’s memoir Rebel Heart. I had sort of forgotten what a huge figure Rundgren was (and still is) in the rock world. Buell (note: I saw Bebe Buell play a show at the University of Maine way back in the early 1980s. Bebe Buell & the B-Sides was the opening act, followed by Syl Sylvain & the Teardrops, both of whom were in support of the legendary Bill Chinnock) reminded me that maybe I needed to start filling in the holes in my Rundgren collection.
So yes, I’ve owned Back To The Bars longer than any of the other albums. The thing is, it feels new. That’s because I bought it from a cutout bin and man, that sucker is warped like you wouldn’t believe. I was never able to play the whole thing. The warp is so bad that it launched the cartridge right off the record’s surface. It was possible to listen to some of the songs if you skipped the first two tracks from each side. Years later, I bought a linear-tracking turntable that could play nearly anything — except this album.
Things changed when I acquired a nice VPI turntable for my “holy-crap-i’m-turning-forty” present to myself. The ‘table has a record clamp that pulls the vinyl right down to the platter’s surface.
What struck me about this recording was the power and flexibility of Rundgren’s voice. If you consider the sequence of “The Verb ‘To Love'” into “Love In Action,” you’ll first hear Rundgren at his most soulful, followed by the full-on roar of “Love In Action.” I noticed this contrast only this morning, though the arena rock of “Love In Action” resonated on first listen many years ago. I guess I must have made it through that first side. Oh, my poor turntable. — by Mark Saleski
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